Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF) Chairman Ohtsura Niwa
HIROSHIMA — The chairman of a joint Japan-U.S. research organization studying the long-term effects of radiation exposure on humans is expected to apologize to hibakusha — survivors of the 1945 U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — who were studied but generally not treated by the organization’s American predecessor, it has been learned.
Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF) Chairman Ohtsura Niwa will give his apology at a June 19 ceremony here commemorating the 70th anniversary of the organization’s establishment, to which hibakusha will be invited.
It is believed that this will mark the first time for a top RERF official to offer a direct, public apology to its subjects and those of its predecessor. “There’s an ironclad rule that one must develop relationships with human research subjects,” Niwa says. “But that sort of thinking didn’t exist in the 20th century. We must improve our relationships with hibakusha.”
Established in 1947 under the orders of U.S. President Harry Truman, the RERF’s predecessor, the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC), began to collect data on hibakusha in Hiroshima. The ABCC began similar studies on hibakusha in Nagasaki the following year. In both cities, subjects, as a rule, went untreated. Japanese authorities also took part in the research, following up on hibakusha years after they were exposed to the bombs. In 1975, the ABCC was reorganized into the bi-national RERF.
Hibakusha have said that the ABCC forcibly took them to research facilities where they were stripped to have their photos taken. Many have been angry with the ABCC for treating them like guinea pigs and violating their human rights, and the organization has long been criticized for gathering data from hibakusha but not treating them.
“Officially, the ABCC did not provide treatment, and instead ran tests on hibakusha and sent them home. It’s only natural that hibakusha harbor negative feelings toward the organization, and that they have had such feelings has been made clear from various records,” RERF Chairman Niwa told the Mainichi Shimbun. “I must apologize.”
There are no records of the organization’s past chairmen or other top officials directly apologizing to hibakusha, and the RERF says it is highly likely that Niwa’s apology will be the first.
In a speech at the outset of the upcoming ceremony, Niwa is expected to say something about the ample criticism and protest against the fact that researchers from the very country that dropped the atomic bombs had collected data from hibakusha, and that he is sorry that such an unfortunate period existed. Content similar to that of the planned speech was included in an RERF pamphlet published in 1995, but few people know about it.
As for hibakusha being stripped naked for tests and bereaved families being asked to donate the bodies of family members who died from radiation exposure, Niwa says, “The U.S. side was not knowledgeable about Japanese culture and traditions, so there was cultural friction. But such steps were necessary for the sake of science.”
Satoru Ubuki, a member of a committee for the preservation of historical records at the RERF, a former Hiroshima Jogakuin University professor, and an expert on the history of atomic bombing, said of the upcoming apology, “The RERF probably determined that to continue conducting research on second- and third-generation hibakusha, it will be more likely to gain their cooperation if the organization apologizes.”
Meanwhile, Nagoya University researcher Hiroko Takahashi, who is well-versed in the ABCC, says, “While there is significance to reflecting on and offering regret for the past, the remarks (Niwa makes) must not justify all research carried out by the RERF. The organization receives funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, and just as the ABCC had military objectives, that fundamental characteristic of the organization remained even after the RERF succeeded the ABCC. Among the data that was sent to the U.S. military in the early days of the RERF are many whose purpose remains unclear, so studies conducted at the time should be verified with the participation of a third party.